On this day in 1888, the so-called “Schoolchildren’s Blizzard” kills 235 people, many of whom were children on their way home from school, across the Northwest Plains region of the United States. The storm came with no warning, and some accounts say that the temperature fell nearly 100 degrees in just 24 hours.
It was a Thursday afternoon and there had been unseasonably warm weather the previous day from Montana east to the Dakotas and south to Texas. Suddenly, within a matter of hours, Arctic air from Canada rapidly pushed south. Temperatures plunged to 40 below zero in much of North Dakota. Along with the cool air, the storm brought high winds and heavy snows. The combination created blinding conditions.
Most victims of the blizzard were children making their way home from school in rural areas and adults working on large farms. Both had difficulty reaching their destinations in the awful conditions. In some places, though, caution prevailed. Schoolteacher Seymour Dopp in Pawnee City, Nebraska, kept his 17 students at school when the storm began at 2 p.m. They stayed overnight, burning stockpiled wood to keep warm. The next day, parents made their way over five-foot snow drifts to rescue their children. In Great Plains, South Dakota, two men rescued the children in a schoolhouse by tying a rope from the school to the nearest shelter to lead them to safety. Minnie Freeman, a teacher in Nebraska, successfully led her children to shelter after the storm tore the roof off of her one-room schoolhouse. In other cases, though, people were less lucky. Teacher Loie Royce tried to lead three children to the safety of her home, less than 90 yards from their school in Plainfield, Nebraska. They became lost, and the children died of hypothermia. Royce lost her feet to frostbite.
In total, an estimated 235 people across the plains died on January 12. The storm is still considered one of the worst blizzards in the history of the area.